Bettina von Arnim and the importance of the female flaneur in
Faculty Mentor: Cindy Brewer, German Department
Upon realizing how deficient my German was, I decided to focus my orca report not on how the
American trancendentalists affected German gehkulture, but on how American transcendentalists
were influenced by german writers. More specifically I was to focus on how Bettine von Arnim
influenced Emerson and his colleagues. This angle would allow me to analyze English literature
instead of picking through German references translating word by word. This happened to be a
convenient change as with more research I learned that American writers were much more likely to
be influenced by German writers than the other way around. Thus I skipped merrily on to Austria
to continue research only to discover that there were no English references there to be had. I
perused the internet instead. I printed off an English translation of Bettine’s book, Goethe’s
Correspondence with a Child, which was a heavy stack of paper indeed, and began reading.
Meanwhile, during an exploration of Viennese side streets I came across a little nick-nack store that
had a good stack of books for sale. Flipping through them I noticed a familiar name, Bettine.
Looking closer I saw that it was the very Bettine that I was researching. I had stumbled upon a
small book of her letters, some of which I recognized as German versions of letters that I had read in
my copy of Goethe’s Correspondence. Though this was not a terribly significant nor helpful find, it
made me realize that Bettine was much more widely known among German scholars than
American. A few searches on the Austrian National Library Database confirmed this to me.
Unfortunately, my German was only microscopically improved and I could not do these sources
justice by trying to read them. With mounting frustration I decided to postpone my research until I
was back in America. In the interim I read Bettine’s book and others’ commentary of it. The book
was alternately inspiring and tedious. From commentary I learned that most of the letters were
embellished and altered to better suit the writer’s fancy. For example, in order to make Bettine’s
passion for Goethe, a married man, more palatable she portrayed herself at a much younger age.
While there are a variety of interesting adventures contained in the letters, there is also an
overabundance of esoteric departures and philosophical fluff, not to mention the excessive and
cloying praise and adoration of Goethe. ...but the story of Gunderode and her suicide is a small
After a wonderful tour of Austria and surrounding countries I headed back home to America just in
time for Christmas. I received a much requested biography of Emerson as one of my gifts and
promptly began reading it. Not long thereafter I discovered that Emerson spent most of his time
reading books and that there were hundreds, if not thousands of authors who had influenced his
writing. If there was any among them who was more influential than the others it was Goethe and
not Bettine. Though it is true that the American transcendentalists were heavily influenced by
German writers, Bettine was just one among many.